Shirley Ng, owner of Country Cheese Coffee Market, says Monterey Market is under-cutting her prices. Photo: Niclas Ericsson

By Niclas Ericsson

Emotions are running high in the Northbrae area of Berkeley, and the friendly spirit of the neighborhood is at stake, according to a number of small merchants who are afraid they will not survive in the wake of what is being perceived as aggressive marketing strategies at Monterey Market.

Several small businesses say the owners of Monterey Market have begun to deliberately stock items that they specialize in — including certain cheeses, wine and flowers — and they are selling them at predatory prices, which threatens the local merchants’ livelihoods.

A group of Northbrae neighbors has distributed a hand-out in support of the small local merchants in which it criticizes Monterey’s approach. “We are making a moral and ethical appeal,” said Tom Meyer, speaking for the group. Signatories on the hand-out include Monterey Fish, Gioa Pizzeria, Hopkins Launderette, and Storey Framing. (See the hand-out here.)

A manager at Monterey Market said he had no comment to make last week when asked by Berkeleyside for his side of the story. Follow-up phone calls requesting an interview were not returned.

“This used to be the happiest neighborhood I have ever worked in,” said Shirley Ng, owner and manager of Country Cheese Coffee Market at 1578 Hopkins Street. Ng said that things started to change in June 2009 when Monterey Market’s former manager, Bill Fujimoto, left his position due to disagreements within his family, the owners of the business.

Monterey Market: a Berkeley institution since 1961

“Bill and his wife Judy were among the leaders of the community,” said Ng. Around 200 locals gathered to say goodbye and show their support to Fujimoto when he left the store.

Monterey Market was established in 1961 by Tom and Mary Fujimoto, Bill’s parents. In the beginning the store had a butcher shop and sold dairy, canned and packaged foods and fresh vegetables. In 1968, the Fujimotos changed the focus of the store to concentrate on fresh produce, according to the store’s website. The store has long enjoyed a reputation for being at the forefront of Berkeley’s natural food movement.

The relationship between the new management and the community seems to have got off on the wrong foot soon after Fujimoto left. Before long, the small local merchants were hearing reports from customers that Monterey Market was selling the same specialty products as they were, but at lower prices.

“We only have a 30% mark-up”, said Ng, adding that she doesn’t understand how Monterey Market can sell the same products so much more cheaply.

Asked why Monterey Market should not have the right to pursue a business model that includes selling what it wants, Ng said:  “Sure, but they don’t have to carry exactly the same products. It’s not that there was no competition before — we carried some of the same items — but we had matching pricing,” Ng said.

Other merchants in the area echo Ng’s views. “We wish the owner of Monterey Market would respect the specialty of others,” said Maria Rosales of delicatessen store Magnanis. Like Ng at Country Cheese Coffee Market, Rosales says sales at Magnanis have gone down recently.

Based on his conversations with local merchants, Meyer believes this is true of several of the smaller local shops. His hand-out cites Mahmoud, owner of a nearby flower booth, who says his sales have dropped by 70%.

The decision by Monterey Market to stay open on Sundays, which it started to do in November last year, has also had a direct impact on sales, according to Ng and Rosales. In the days of Bill Fujimoto, opening hours used to be coordinated among the merchants, according to Ng.

Montery Market does have a section in its website about the neighborhood, with separate descriptions of the area’s merchants, including Ng’s store.

Bo Larson, owner of Monterey Liquors, is used to competition as Monterey Market has been selling wine and beer for a long time. But he is not happy about the store expanding into the domain of other merchants.

“There is a really nice community eco-system here, and I think it’s foolish what they are trying to do. It’s shortsighted and I don’t think it’s going to work out the way they want,” he said.

Attempts by the group of concerned neighbors to communicate with the management of the market were initiated as long as a year ago, according to Meyer. When these failed, the group decided to put together a hand-out to publicize the views of the local residents and small-business owners.

Around 150 500 copies of the hand-out were distributed in the area surrounding Monterey Market on Saturday April 30. Sign-up sheets at the local merchants, asking people to help with the campaign, have gathered more than 100 names, Meyer said. The group is now hoping that customers will choose to support the smaller merchants.

“We at least want to make people aware. A lot of people would go out of their way to support the local merchants,” he said.

Meyer said that recently the group had been approached by a representative of Monterey Market to set up a meeting. “That discussion will determine where we go from here,” he said.

Asked what he expected from the Market, Meyer said: “They should talk to their fellow merchants about how they could all flourish.”

Like several of the other merchants Ng is trying to adapt, moving into new products lines and instituting more competitive pricing. “I don’t mind the challenge. But there is a special spirit in this neighborhood”, she said, making it clear that she sees that spirit as being under threat.

Niclas Ericsson is a columnist, novelist and freelance journalist reporting from the Bay area for various Swedish media. He is currently interning at Berkeleyside.

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